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Swiss referendum leader discusses basic income

di Tyler Prochazka Interview Enno Schmidt

One of the masterminds behind the upcoming Swiss referendum on the basic income Enno Schmidt said that no matter the outcome on June 5, he will still have achieved his goal of starting a widespread discussion about the issue.

Enno Schmidt, founder of the Basic Income initiative in Switzerland.

Enno Schmidt, founder of the Basic Income initiative in Switzerland.

Schmidt started his basic income advocacy back in 2006 and has been pushing the idea through films, lectures and articles ever since. In 2013, he and others collected over 120,000 signatures in order to get the basic income up for a referendum in Switzerland, which he said was not an easy task.

In anticipation of the upcoming referendum, Schmidt answered some questions about the past, present and future of the basic income in Switzerland and beyond. Some of the quotations have been edited for clarity.


Why did you found the initiative basic income? What was your intention for the initiative in 2006? Have your goal’s changed?

The reason was to make the people more free in their decisions about their life and in their personal responsibility to live according to their own intentions.

The right to political initiatives for everyone in Switzerland and the Direct Democracy made it possible to come up with this proposal to create a general discussion throughout the entire population and to finally achieve a referendum.

The intention was to give all people a basic income unconditional in order to create a society with more variety, less fear, and more productivity in a much broader sense. Also part of the goal was to bring the idea of unconditionality to our otherwise purely functional conceptions of living. Ultimately it represents the question about what it means to be human. The goal did not change but has been enriched with more and more significance. Aspects such as the upcoming data economy, the need to strengthen civil society, the necessary power shift towards the citizens all contributed to this conception.


How did you happen upon the concept of the basic income? Why do you think you were drawn to the idea?

Because the basic income refers to the individual, not to a specific circumstances. It does not determine people, it enables everyone to come into play in society. It does not judge what people do. It’s a base of human kindness and a protection of privacy. It’s about respect and appreciation towards the other and it’s about self-determination. Thus new the new and unforeseen can happen and develop. Today there is no more lack of material goods. The productiveness in the old sense increases with ever less human labor. We need a space for the new productivity as we face our current challenges. We have to rethink the income supply and examine our values. Separating income and work reveals the value of work. No one should be blackmailed with his livelihood. The right to work is the right to do what you really want to do. This right needs a right to income. The unconditional basic income is a democratically coordinated income, not negotiated economically. The logic and beauty of the idea has drawn me.


How would you compare the public’s interest in the basic income in 2006 to the interest/support right now?

Ten years ago, we moved across the country, organized events and let others come up for discussion. We still do. But now the media has come from all over to us and spread the idea worldwide. We started from a little point with nearly no knowledge in society about the idea. And still we are far from a majority convinced of the basic income. But attention and acceptance has greatly increased. Not only in Switzerland. But Switzerland has the benefit of direct democracy. With our campaign for the vote we managed to even get some of the opponents of the basic income to acclaim the concept as the new idea for Europe. The interest grew rapidly after the World Economic Forum in Davos discussed the unconditional basic income as the most innovative and intelligent solution for the upcoming digitalization era, and once again grew rapidly due to the upcoming vote.


How do you feel about your chances with the upcoming vote?

With this vote, we will have established the subject firmly in society. If one in five votes is yes, then that is incredible progress. So much has moved in the minds, in fixed opinions, and new eyes have appeared. It’s the first time in history that this issue is discussed in an entire population with the serious background of a referendum to vote on and decide.

By this vote the majority may vote no, but the vote itself is an opportunity to introduce an unconditional basic income to society. But maybe in ten years the next referendum will result in a majority voting yes. Therefore, it is not so much a question about how we feel about our chances, but we already have taken the chance to create a public and broad debate about the basic income unlike anything seen before. This vote is a milestone on a path on which the debate is getting stronger at home and abroad.


Can you describe the process of getting the initiative on the ballot? How did you feel when the initiative was successfully scheduled for a public vote?

I felt as if the gate was opened for a heavenly reality and a really human approach, for an big event and great chance. When the Federal Chancellery had approved the people’s initiative, we had 18 months’ time to gather at least 100,000 valid signatures of Swiss citizens. This is not online. You have to go on the street in all types of weather. That is not easy. While doing so a new dynamic developed. “Generation basic income” converted the severe toil into a sporting competition. We turned the large number into achievable goals, with each individual collecting visible results, and over the long run a series of successes.

When we submitted 126,000 signatures on October 4, 2013 in the Federal Chancellery, I had the feeling of having made gotten the essentials, that the way was now open for a general major debate in society. The referendum itself is already a point of arrival. We offer the proposal: The citizens vote.


How has your outlook changed for the prospect of the basic income over the last ten years?

I realized early on that a basic income will come. The idea is as strong as the idea of democracy or human rights. It is of the same kind. It is even the same idea. The question is not whether it comes, but how it comes and by whom, by what interests. This prospect has been confirmed over the time. Already in the design of the meaning of an unconditional basic income is its way of being introduced. An unconditional basic income not only allows more flexibility, it also requires more. It comes through the people who are affected or it comes out wrong. It may not come automatically as a result of automation. It may not come from the rich to the poor and not as an economy measure. It should not be a new feudalism, no philanthropic colonialism and not to plug old holes. If the unconditional does not affect everybody, it is for no one. The comprehensive and greatness of this idea became even clearer for me and thus also the possibilities to use it quite differently.


What would the implications be if the Swiss vote yes on the referendum? What would the implications be if they vote no — including for you and your advocacy?

With a majority yes the introduction will be prepared and probably start with pilot projects such as in Finland. This will take some years. About the amount of a basic income and the type of finance it probably will come to next public votes. Also other points of the basic income can lead to new referendums. Overall, I think, it will need 20 years. With a majority no the discussion also will go on. This referendum has given such a strong thrust to the debate. The development will go along as well, just not within the authorities. Also pilot projects can arise in some cities and cantons. And the development in other countries continues. We see things not isolated in Switzerland. We see it in conjunction with the other areas experimenting with the basic income. Another referendum in Switzerland is possible and the introduction will go more quickly. Time does not stand still and an unconditional basic income becomes more and more inevitable.

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